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Managing Electronic Waste in a Circular Economy

Waste Harmonics

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that we live in an increasingly tech-enabled society. Always on the cusp of innovation or obtaining the latest and greatest devices for more efficient or practical purposes, our dependency on technological tools, assets and equipment continues to be a staple in our everyday personal and professional lives.

Considering that our reliance on technology and electronic devices doesn’t show signs of wavering any time soon, it’s imperative for tech consumers to be mindful of the lifecycle of these products and how to properly dispose of them when they’re no longer needed, wanted or are due for replacement to minimize overall environmental impact.

In current waste and recycling infrastructures, electronic waste (e-waste) comprises any electronic product that is soon to be discarded or considered obsolete. E-waste encompasses more than just the everyday devices that may come to mind, such as cellphones and computers, and falls into six overarching categories to capture specific products that should be disposed of with care.

The six main categories of e-waste are:

  1. Temperature Exchange Equipment: Air conditioners, fridges, freezers and other types of cooling equipment.
  2. Screens and Monitors: TVs, laptops, monitors, tablets and other personal electronic devices.
  3. Lamps: LED light fixtures, bulbs and fluorescent lamps.
  4. Large Equipment: Staple household and hospitality products, including clothes washing machines and dryers, dishwashers, electric stoves and more.
  5. Small Equipment: Anything from your microwave to electronic toys and medical devices.
  6. Small IT and Telecommunications Equipment: Mobile phones, GPS systems and printers.

The above categorization only begins to scratch the surface of the various products that fall within these groupings, and recent statistics compiled by Statista estimate that only around 17.4% of the 50 million metric tons of e-waste generated globally per year is documented, collected and properly recycled. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that only 25 states, including the District of Columbia, currently have electronics recycling laws in place, although we may see that expand to other states in the near future.

In the interim, there are several ways consumers—from households to businesses—can leverage the concept of circularity to capture and recycle these materials more consciously and efficiently, thus keeping hazardous waste found in batteries and other electronics out of landfills.

Solutions for E-Waste Management in a Circular Economy

We often conceptualize waste disposal as a linear process (i.e., waste is disposed of, picked up and diverted to a landfill). But there are possibilities to extend the lifecycle of e-waste within the framework of a circular economy, meaning that electronics set to be discarded can be recycled, reused, repurposed, refurbished or even resold. To initiate that circuitous process, there are several different waste streams or disposal methods that can be effectively deployed to give products a new life, home or office space.

One common method is finding new and different ways to use or refurbish electronics and machines through e-recycling (the go-to terminology for many years). Once devices hit the waste stream, they can be broken down and used for parts or even refurbished using available rebates to be resold to companies that will in turn resell them for an economical price. When breaking down certain equipment or planning to refurbish and resell items such as laptops, there’s a responsibility to ensure proper steps are taken to wipe any sensitive data and break down parts that may contain materials considered hazardous to the environment (e.g., flammable parts).

Mail-back programs are a safe and convenient way to facilitate this process, and cover consumer costs related to packaging materials and shipping rates. The process is as straightforward as it sounds. Once the e-waste is picked up, it is mailed to a facility where data is wiped to avoid potentially costly data breaches. Parts are broken down, shredded or cleaned in accordance with any local- or state-mandated regulations to separate metals, phosphorous powders, mercury or freons often found in fridges or temperature-controlled equipment in a responsible and protected process.

Like laptops, lamps, lightbulbs and batteries have similar and thorough processes for disposal to remove various materials (e.g., lead, cadmium, nickel or silver) depending on how they’re manufactured. However, battery recycling mandates vary state by state, so staying up to date on local and state ordinances is imperative. Replacing fluorescent lighting with more energy efficient LED lighting is also becoming more commonplace in organizations, brick and mortar stores and other businesses. As companies convert and remove old ballasts, it’s important to recycle the old bulbs to ensure that even with new energy-efficient lighting in place, the old lighting fixtures can find new and efficient uses.

For e-waste that doesn’t find a second life through parts disbursement or refurbishment, an option that sustains the circular economy is donation, especially if the products are unwanted but in good condition. For example, businesses looking to replace their portfolio of computers or employee laptops can check with local schools or higher ed institutions that may be able to repurpose those devices once data is properly removed. Also common: large apartment complexes upgrading their units with new appliances (e.g., stoves and dishwashers), can either donate or resell old machines at low cost to other organizations or consumers in the market seeking those appliances for their businesses or homes.

An overwhelming amount of e-waste is generated every day. As we strive to reduce our environmental impact by using less or extending the use of certain devices to create new electronic materials, staying steadfast and committed to e-waste recycling programs is invaluable. A circular economy is not attainable or effective without these programs in place and the backing of producers, municipalities and innovative managed waste service providers.

Melissa Modica has more than 13 years in the waste and recycling industry and works directly with customers to reach their sustainability goals through Waste Harmonics’ technology and innovative solutions. Previously, Modica was employed at Insignia Waste Holdings from 2020 to 2022, DRM Waste Management from 2018 to 2020 and RiverRoad Waste Solutions from 2009 to 2018. Modica graduated from Ocean County College and has LEED GA Accreditation. 

This article was originally published in Waste Advantage Magazine